Angela Nyawira Khaminwa

July 2003

Coexistence is a state in which two or more groups are living together while respecting their differences and resolving their conflicts nonviolently. Although the idea of coexistence is not new, the term came into common usage during the Cold War. The policy of 'peaceful coexistence' was used in the context of U.S. and U.S.S.R. relations. Initially, it was a cover for aggression, but then it developed as a tool for reframing the relationship between the two powers. In the late '80s, the policy of peaceful coexistence included principles such as "nonaggression, respect for sovereignty, national independence, and noninterference in internal affairs."[1]

Coexistence has been defined in numerous ways:

  • To exist together (in time or place) and to exist in mutual tolerance.[2]
  • To learn to recognize and live with difference.[3]
  • To have a relationship between persons or groups in which none of the parties is trying to destroy the other.[4]
  • To interact with a commitment to tolerance, mutual respect, and the agreement to settle conflicts without recourse to violence.[5]

At the core of coexistence is the awareness that individuals and groups differ in numerous ways including class, ethnicity, religion, gender, and political inclination. These group identities may be the causes of conflicts, contribute to the causes of conflicts, or may be solidified as conflicts develop and escalate. A policy of coexistence, however, diminishes the likelihood that identity group differences will escalate into a damaging or intractable conflict.

Coexistence and Conflict

Additional insights into coexistence are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Conflict is ubiquitous and occurs at the individual, community, institutional, and national levels. Many conflicts are localized and expressed nonviolently. In fact, conflict can be constructive and in many instances it is fundamental to social change.[6] However, conflict that is widespread and expressed violently appears to have increased over recent decades, impelling the global community to examine the root causes of conflicts and analyze conflict theory and management in greater detail. While times of coexistence do not exclude conflict, they do exclude widespread violence.

The Coexistence Continuum

Coexistence exists before and after violent conflict. However, it is not static. Like all social environments, it fluctuates, depending on the level of social interaction. Coexistence exists in situations where individuals and communities actively accept and embrace diversity (active coexistence) and where individuals and communities merely tolerate other groups (passive coexistence). Communities that are not experiencing violent conflict can be located anywhere within this range.

Passive coexistence. This type of coexistence occurs where relationships are characterized by unequal power relationships, little inter-group contact, and little equity. In short, the principles of social justice are not apparent here. While this type of environment may lack violence, the continuation of unequal relationships is unlikely to lead to the resolution of conflict.[7] Institutions in this environment are not designed to support equality; consequently unjust and oppressive structures can be maintained. These structures often impede community growth, peace processes, and the development of democracy. Yet since inter-group conflict is not widespread, the groups can still be said to coexist without violence.

Active coexistence. In this type of coexistence, relationships are characterized by a recognition and respect for diversity and an active embrace of difference, equal access to resources and opportunities, and equity in all aspects of life. This type of coexistence fosters peace and social cohesion based on justice, equality, inclusion, and equity. In addition, institutions in this environment are designed to ensure fairness.

The Value of Coexistence

Coexistence work moves "societies away from violent interaction and helps maintain a non-violent system of dealing with conflict within societies. It recognizes and addresses the root causes of conflicts to enable individuals and societies to develop strategies for existing without destroying the enemy."[11]

Finding peace in the whirlwind of war is a difficult and sometimes impossible task: "... the continuation of killings that accompany wars tends to perpetuate hatreds and stimulate vengefulness, thus fueling the continuation of the conflict. Such emotions not only hinder efforts to settle the conflict, but produce conditions that make the renewal of war more possible."[8]

A state of coexistence provides psychological and physical conditions for individuals, organizations, and/or communities to reduce tensions, and for peacemakers to attempt to resolve the causes of the conflict. This period of nonviolence is especially useful post-war, as it provides an environment in which the causes of conflict can be addressed and peace can be envisioned, negotiated, and achieved. "The onset of a coexistence era allows common interests (such as economic ones) to emerge among the antagonists, giving both parties a strong stake in making the temporary stage a permanent one. It is this ongoing dynamic that ... makes the concept of coexistence a particularly useful one in the resolution of intractable ethnic conflicts."[9]

Coexistence in Many Contexts

While much of the scholarly writing on coexistence has focused mainly on international conflicts, its basic tenets -- recognizing diversity, the worth of the 'Other,' and nonviolence -- are applicable in other contexts. In fact, mediation at all levels (for example, interpersonal, organizational, and community) fosters coexistence as mediators encourage resolution and promote "the parties' mutual recognition of each other as fellow human beings despite their conflict."[10]

Getting to Coexistence

Coexistence work is that which brings individuals, communities, and/or nations away from violence and towards social cohesion (see table below). This includes efforts that aim to address past wrongs, search for justice and forgiveness, build/rebuild communities, and explore ways for community structures and systems to embody fairness, justice, and equity.

Disarmament, conversion
Mediation, negotiation, dialogues
Refugee return, combatant demobilization and reintegration, restorative justice, reconciliation
Diversity initiatives, multicultural and peace education, and minority rights awareness
Integrating social justice and diversity in institutions

These tools of coexistence are all geared towards preventing, reducing, and eliminating violence in an effort to take societies towards increased integration. In addition to functioning as a framing mechanism, coexistence therefore becomes a term with which different types of peace work can be discussed. This usage implicitly promotes a multi-pronged approach to conflict prevention and resolution, one that looks not at a single field for a solution, but that acknowledges the need for cross-sectoral (such as conflict resolution, economic development, and public health) and multi-level (from grassroots to policy) efforts. This broad and inclusive approach is fundamental in the transition from war to passive coexistence and then to active coexistence, to the development of peace practice, and to the creation of sustainable peace.

As we move further into the 21st century with an increasingly complex international political system and a multifaceted field of stakeholders, our language and concepts must adapt to the realities of conflict, violence, and combat. Efforts to mainstream the notion of coexistence in both the peacebuilding and conflict-resolution fields and in everyday interaction are a priority.

The opportunity that increased coexistence presents -- a reduction in violence, an active embracing of diversity, and collaboration within and across fields -- is of increasing value and significance worldwide. The promise of coexistence is that it provides a needed pause from violence, and a springboard into stronger, more respectful inter-group relationships.

[1] Eugene Weiner, "Coexistence Work: A New Profession." In The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998): 13-24. <>.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary, 1997 ed., Frank R. Abate.

[3] Kumar Rupesinghe, "Coexistence and Transformation in Asia: Some Reflections." In Culture & Identity: Ethnic Coexistence in the Asian Context, ed. Kumar Rupsinghe (Washington, D.C.: The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 1999): 3-37. <>.

[4] Louis Kriesberg, "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts." In The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998): 182-198. <>.

[5] The Coexistence Initiative. Organizational brochure.

[6] Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) <>; Lewis Coser, The Functions of Social Conflict (Glenco: Free Press, 1956/1964) <>; Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997) <>.

[7] Touval, op. cit.

[8] Saadia Touval, "Ethical Dilemmas in International Mediation," Negotiation Journal 11:333-38. <>.

[9] Weiner, op. cit.

[10] Robert Baruch-Bush, The Dilemmas of Mediation Practice: A Study of Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Implications. A Report on a Study for The National Institute For Dispute Resolution. NIDR, 1992. <>.

[11] Weiner, op. cit.

Use the following to cite this article:
Khaminwa, Angela Nyawira. "Coexistence." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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